Infidelity can end relationships.
In my 25 years as a marriage counselor I have repeatedly seen that affairs pose an existential threat to a relationship unlike almost anything else.
Some couples have open relationships by mutual agreement. But in relationships where the understanding is exclusivity, why do people cheat?
The reasons can matter. Some motivations for affairs are more likely than others to kill a relationship if the affair surfaces. Here are some of the most common reasons:
1) Fallen out of love
When partners feel no longer “in love” and lose hope that their feelings can be rekindled, one or both partners may seek love – real or imagined – elsewhere.
2) Fear of intimacy
Monogamy brings with it the possibility of deep intimacy. For some, a deep, enduring intimate connection may feel overwhelming or unsafe. An affair outside the relationship can create distance from one’s partner that allows them to stay in the relationship but avoid getting too close.
3) Lack of emotional or sexual connection
If a relationship becomes stale for a long time, some partners may seek emotional or physical closeness from others to fulfill their need for connection.
4) Met their “soulmate”
Sometimes people become enamored of someone else and feel that the newcomer is their destiny. In my experience, when people leave a long-term partner because they are convinced they have finally found their “soulmate,” the new relationships often fail to endure.
Some partners who feel betrayed may seek to get even. Other times partners may feel deprived in a relationship and blame their partner. A straying partner may gain a sense of revenge from having an affair their partner never finds out about. Other times they let their partner know as a way to even the score, even punish or inflict hurt.
6) Life-cycle crisis, identity change or stressful life events
When people feel overwhelmed by a life transition or feel unsure who they are or where their life is going, it may feel as though all bets are off. They may explore an affair as part of finding a new identity or a way to cope with stress.
7) Conflict avoidance
Some couples avoid conflict for fear things might get out of hand. Some people lack confidence they can handle disagreements with their partner in a constructive way. But conflict is inevitable in relationships. Affairs can sometimes be a way of distracting from or releasing tension that builds up in a primary relationship.
8) Sex / Love addiction
Most of us relish the emotional high from falling in love. But once that emotional high wears off, some people may seek it elsewhere. Some partners may feel driven to have sex with multiple partners out of a sense of conquest. Others may crave the novelty that comes with a succession of new partners.
Some people, particularly those with narcissism, feel it is their right to cheat on their partners. They don’t value honesty and don’t like feeling “confined” by the norms of marriage.
Some people who have affairs say “It just happened.” In my experience, affairs don’t just happen. It takes at least some intention and choice to go outside one’s relationship. But many affairs begin because of opportunity. Perhaps a partner spends a great deal of time with a co-worker and finds growing attraction. Perhaps a partner is traveling and finds willing partners for one-night stands.
11) To end the relationship
This can be among the most destructive type of affair. One partner decides he or she is done with the relationship and pursues an affair knowing that if it is discovered it will end the relationship. These “exit affairs” frequently are discovered because the cheating partner leaves clues, consciously or not, that nearly guarantee discovery.
12) Lack of self esteem
If a partner feels empty or unworthy, the attention and affection from someone new can temporarily make them feel better about themselves.
13) Test the waters
Sometimes one partner may be thinking about ending the relationship and wants to measure her or his attractiveness on the market. They may flirt or see if they can get physical with others as a way of finding out how readily available new partnerships might be if they left their existing relationship.
People have affairs for many reasons, often with multiple motivations. If you are in a relationship with infidelity, your relationship may or may not recover.
Affairs that are driven by entitlement, sex addiction, revenge, falling out of love, or a desire to end the relationship are especially difficult to move beyond.
On the other hand, affairs that come from a lack of connection, fear of intimacy, lack of self-esteem, or a life-cycle event may have a greater likelihood of survival.
If the straying partner comes clean, ends the affair and makes honest efforts to make amends, sometimes healing can begin. Then, if both partners are willing to do the work necessary to understand what led to the affair and repair their connection, many relationships can survive infidelity.